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By Treven Pyles
Posted on August 08th, 2017
Scientific studies over the past century have uncovered the fact that asbestos has been poisoning human-kind for generations. The naturally occurring mineral has been used globally in its pure form for thousands of years to strengthen and improve a variety of products and to provide heat insulation and fire resistance.
While asbestos manufacturers went to outrageous lengths to downplay the terrible consequences of exposure during the 20th century, the link between asbestos and cancer is no longer a secret. Although it is a naturally occurring mineral, asbestos is highly carcinogenic. It is worthy of note that asbestos represents a health hazard only when fibers become airborne. The inhalation or ingestion of asbestos fibers, particularly over the course of a significant period of time, can result in life-threatening diseases such as mesothelioma or lung cancer.
Despite a substantial decrease in asbestos consumption and a series of effective workplace safety regulations, the issue of asbestos exposure is still topical. Every year, between 12,000 and 15,000 deaths in the U.S. are attributed to asbestos exposure, since a disease only ensues within several decades of the first contact with this toxic agent. Massive amounts of asbestos were present in occupational settings such as power plants, construction sites, and shipyards throughout the country before the 1980s, which led to the exposure of over 11 million workers. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that the annual number of asbestos victims will continue to remain steady for at least ten more years, after which a gradual decrease is expected.
Asbestos exposure, as well as the numerous illnesses it can cause, is undoubtedly a complex topic. Here are 10 facts and statistics that summarize the devastating impact the toxic mineral:
Frequent exposure to hazardous agents in the workplace is the culprit behind up to 6% of cancer cases worldwide. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, there are over 100 known human carcinogens and approximately 800 other substances which might entail a cancer risk. Asbestos is a known human carcinogen that can cause plenty of serious diseases, from non-malignant illnesses like asbestosis to aggressive forms of cancer such as mesothelioma or lung cancer.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that in 2012, exposure to toxic agents on the job resulted in between 45,872 and 91,745 new cancer cases. Even though the prevalence of asbestos in the workplace is very low at the moment, past asbestos exposure is still accountable for one in three deaths stemming from occupational cancer. According to the International Commission of Occupational Health, almost 40,000 deaths in the U.S. occurred due to past asbestos exposure.
It's interesting to know that the first case of asbestosis was documented in 1907. Dr. Hubert Montague Murray, a Senior Physician, and lecturer in pathology at the Charing Cross Hospital in London reported lung disease caused by long-term asbestos exposure in a textile worker in 1907. Although this was definitely not the first asbestosis case to ever occur, as these toxic minerals have been employed for various purposes since ancient times, Dr. Murray provided a detailed description of the pulmonary fibrosis he discovered during the autopsy. "Spicules of asbestos" have been found in workers' lungs, as well as in their sputum while they were alive. The physician attributed the respiratory condition to asbestos exposure, which eventually led to their death.
Because asbestos fibers are microscopic, the fibers can slip through the lungs' natural filtration system and penetrate outwardly through the membrane which covers the lungs and lines the chest cavity. This can quickly cause inflammation and scarring, which in turn will affect breathing and gradually lead to a number of respiratory diseases, including:
The fibers can also be swallowed and penetrate the stomach. Unfortunately, nothing can remove the fibers from the body due to their sharp, needle-like nature.
Asbestos exposure can occur when asbestos-containing materials are disturbed during maintenance, repair, abatement, and demolition of buildings and industrial facilities. Fibers can be released into the air and inhaled by the workers when these products are manufactured or used. The most common types of occupational cancer are lung cancer, throat cancer, and mesothelioma - a rare, aggressive form of cancer that develops in the linings of the lungs, abdomen, or heart.
Some examples of high-risk occupations for asbestos exposure include:
Though the largest contributing risk factor for lung cancer is smoking, studies estimate that about 3 - 4% of lung cancer diagnoses are actually asbestos-related.
Although there is no safe asbestos exposure, multiple studies indicate that the amount of asbestos one was in contact with, as well as the duration of exposure, influences the likelihood of developing mesothelioma. Occupational asbestos exposure implies the highest risk in this respect since employees would regularly breathe in enormous amounts of toxic fibers over the course of several years. Indeed, the vast majority of mesothelioma patients have a history of workplace asbestos exposure.
To make matters worse, medical studies suggest that smokers with a history of asbestos exposure are between 50 and 90 times more likely to develop lung cancer than non-smokers who were in contact with this toxic mineral.
In addition to mesothelioma and lung cancer, asbestos exposure is also responsible for a series of other malignant diseases, including:
Similarly to mesothelioma, these forms of cancer entail a latency period of several decades, as the development of inflammation and tissue scarring - which always forego the disease per se - is a gradual process.
Over the course of the last century, besides having been deemed an ideal building material, asbestos has also been employed for a wide variety of other applications, some of which quite surprising. Fibers of white asbestos served as artificial snow between the 1930s and the 1950s in the U.S. due to their great resemblance with real snow. The product was sold under various trade names such as White Magic Snow and Snow Drift. Nowadays, when the hazardous effects of exposure are well-known and undeniable, it is frightening to think that people would carelessly decorate their Christmas trees with these carcinogenic fibers.
Perhaps the most shocking product in which asbestos has been added is toothpaste. During the 1950s, Ipana, a brand of toothpaste manufactured by Bristol-Myers Company, became widely popular in the U.S. due to its alleged whitening properties. One of its ingredients was asbestos fibers, which were supposed to help teeth abrasion.
Another unsettling application of asbestos refers "ironically" to the medical field. After World War II, cardiothoracic surgeons would close patients' incisions with asbestos thread, as it had remarkable resistance and flexibility. Some other common asbestos-containing products were cigarette filters, hairdryers, talcum powder and makeup.
Veterans who served in the U.S. military are at a high risk of having or later developing an asbestos-related illness. The reason is simple: The military relied on asbestos for decades in building everything from barracks to ships. Anything the military wanted to protect from fires likely included asbestos.
Between the 1930s and mid-1970s, the United States military extensively used asbestos-containing products for insulation in the construction of ships and vessels and throughout bases across the country. Many companies conducted internal health studies where the deadly effects of their products were proven, but chose to hide the results from the public and continued favoring profits over the health of their workers. The widespread use of these products is now known to have affected every branch of the military with a significantly higher prevalence among Navy personnel.
There is a good reason why asbestos is also known as the silent killer. One common trait of illnesses resulting from asbestos exposure is a long latency period. Thus, a disease will affect people with a history of asbestos exposure within several decades of the first contact with airborne fibers. While non-malignant diseases have a slightly shorter latency period, typically occurring in 10 to 30 years, mesothelioma takes considerably more time to develop. This form of cancer has very rapid progress, as well as a worrisome prognosis, with the majority of patients surviving for only one year after diagnosis.
Due to their rough texture, asbestos fibers will become embedded in the tissue they reach following inhalation or ingestion, which renders the human body unable to eliminate them. The carcinogenic nature of asbestos will gradually cause severe inflammation and tissue scarring, which might eventually give way to mesothelioma. Up to 10% of people who were exposed to asbestos in the workplace will develop pleural mesothelioma, the most common type of this cancer.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) estimated that illnesses stemming from asbestos exposure are responsible for between 12,000 and 15,000 deaths annually in the U.S. According to the report published by Jukka Takala, the President of the International Commission of Occupational Health, 39,275 deaths occur due to asbestos-related diseases in the United States annually, which is more than double the estimate made by the EWG in 2015. To be more specific, 34,270 lung cancer deaths, 3,161 mesothelioma deaths, 787 ovarian cancer deaths, 443 larynx cancer deaths, and 613 chronic asbestosis deaths have occurred as a result of asbestos exposure. Consequently, non-malignant pulmonary diseases are the most widespread cause of asbestos-related deaths. It is noteworthy that often times, these diseases forego the onset of a more serious illness like lung cancer or mesothelioma.
There is no doubt that asbestos employment has declined substantially since 1973, when a record amount of 804,000 metric tons were consumed in the U.S. However, contrary to popular belief, asbestos is not entirely banned in the country. While a series of federal regulations limiting the use and preventing exposure is currently effective, certain applications of asbestos remain legal. Accordingly, a significant amount of asbestos is still exploited in the U.S. every year.
Even though the Environmental Protection Agency attempted to outlaw asbestos in 1989, the regulation was regrettably overturned and thus, the use of asbestos in products which have historically contained it is still allowed, as well as import. Over 8 million pounds of asbestos entered the country between 2006 and 2014. However, asbestos mining and new employments are strictly forbidden.
The primary consumer of asbestos is the chlor-alkali industry, which accounted for nearly 100% of asbestos use during 2018. Nevertheless, asbestos consumption will most likely continue to decrease in the United States, since more and more companies within this industry are turning to non-asbestos diaphragms for the production of chlorine and sodium hydroxide. However, an unknown amount of asbestos in the form of products such as brake materials, asbestos-cement pipe, tile and wallpaper products, and rubber sheets for gaskets continues to be imported, according to the US Geological Survey Report.
Despite the fact that 55 countries have banned asbestos use, mining and import entirely within the last four decades, the carcinogen is still widely mined in multiple places around the world, regardless of the tremendous health risks exposure entails. Russia is the leading producer of asbestos at the moment, with over half a million tons of asbestos being annually exported to countries such as Thailand, China, and India, where regulations regarding asbestos are practically non-existent. Canada, Brazil, China, and Kazakhstan are also in the top 5 producers of asbestos worldwide.
On December 10, 1966, attorney Ward Stephenson filed the first asbestos products lawsuit on behalf of Claude Tomplait, a former insulator from Beaumont, Texas who developed asbestosis as a consequence of occupational asbestos exposure. After having been diagnosed with asbestosis in July of that year, Mr. Tomplait decided to take legal action against eleven asbestos manufacturers to whose products he had been exposed on the job. Some of the companies listed as defendants were:
The case went to trial on May 12, 1969, but the verdict was unfortunately returned in favor of the defendants the following week.
However, in October 1969, the same lawyer took on the case of Clarence Borel, one of Mr. Tomplait's co-workers, who had also been affected by workplace asbestos exposure. Following 33 years of heavy asbestos exposure, he was diagnosed with asbestosis and mesothelioma. The number of defendants involved in Mr. Borel's lawsuit was even greater. Despite being very similar to the previous lawsuit, this case was successful and the plaintiff was eventually awarded $79,436.24.